A difficult road to Rutgers

Ranked No. 17 in the 2012 class, Kahleah Copper of Philadelphia, Pa., solidifies a class for Rutgers that, combined with the previous year's group, could develop into a national-championship contender. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

The text was long and unexpected. It came when Kahleah Copper was in school, her sophomore year in Philadelphia, Pa. The message from her mother, Leticia, was clear and unsettling.

Her mother had breast cancer. And that changed everything.

Kahleah Copper is the youngest of Leticia's three girls. All of them are special in some way. Kahleah had basketball, and was so good at it that she was ranked the No. 17 prospect in the 2012 class by ESPN HoopGurlz.

A prospect like Kahleah Copper travels a lot, to get before college coaches, and it instilled in her a kind of wanderlust. She thought a lot about playing at DePaul, almost a thousand miles west in Chicago. Also on her list were Rutgers, St. John's and Syracuse.

Copper agonized. Her mother's breast cancer had changed everything.

"It was why it was so difficult to make a decision," Copper said of her college commitment.

Copper thought a lot about the nights, especially the bad ones after a loss, when she just wanted to go home and curl up in her mother's arms. She had missed Leticia Copper's support out on the club-basketball circuit the past couple years. And that -- the missing -- prompted her to choose Rutgers, a program soon to be bursting with talent that Copper knows first hand. She'd come up with Philly Triple Threat, then the NYC Gauchos with Briyona Canty, who headlined Rutgers' mighty homegrown 2011 signing class.

Though Rutgers is just an hour's drive away, getting there was a struggle for Copper. During the toughest times of her mother's battle with breast cancer, basketball became her own medicine.

"It was difficult, especially in the beginning," Copper said. "But basketball just takes all the pain away. I can be mad at the world and have the best game of my life."

There was the occasion when Copper's sadness was apparent. But that wasn't often.

"She kept finding ways to get through it," said Earl Elliotte, her club coach with the Gauchos. "She is a strong kid, inside and out."

Basketball kept providing a haven, and Copper worked hard at it.

Elliotte lauds the 6-foot-1 Copper's versatility. She became the type of player whose position was defined by the situation on the court. If she got a defensive rebound, she was a point guard who could transport the ball up the floor. If she caught the ball on the perimeter, she was a wing with multiple scoring options. If she was in the lane with the ball coming at her, she was a shot-blocking forward.

In his Elliotte's mind, Copper's improvement with her pull-up mid-range jumper was a game-changer for her. It wasn't easy, she says.

"It was a struggle; I'll tell you that," Copper said. "I was just so dedicated to getting better."

Kahleah Copper says she knew how basketball could expand her options. So she grabbed a hold of it, like she grabbed onto her mother, never wanting to let go. Those two, her mother and basketball, helped her get through everything else, after all.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.